On May 28, it was reported that the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was considering allowing a certain form of female circumcision, involving “ritual nicks”. RANZCOG later said it was a misrepresentation, and that “anyone suspected of performing such genital mutilation should be reported to authorities”, the Sydney Morning Herald said the same day.
But if we reject all forms of female circumcision, why is it that male circumcision remains so acceptable?
Circumcision of girls often entails absolutely brutal practices, such as the total removal of the labia and the clitoris, particularly in Northern Africa — although many countries are trying to stop it. It often takes place without any anaesthetic and with non-sterilised instruments.
It is not uncommon for girls to die due to infection, but for those who do survive, a lifetime of pain and suffering awaits them, as well as a loss of sexual sensitivity.
Such mutilation has rightly been decried as a terrible practice. Clearly these practices also entail a greater level of violence than male circumcision does.
But at the other end of the extreme, female circumcision may involve nothing more than a superficial “nick”; this could be viewed as being less significant than the total removal of the foreskin in males.
According to RANZCOG president, Dr Ted Weaver, "Child protection legislation is about stopping [such ‘nicking’] happening ... all of the states have legislated in this way so it is illegal in Australia”, the SMH said .
Tasmanian Commissioner for Children Paul Mason, has questioned whether it is actually legal — let alone ethical — to conduct male circumcision, a non-therapeutic procedure.
In every other circumstance, Mason says, it is legally considered assault to perform a non-therapeutic surgery without consent. According to him, it should be banned, along with female circumcision and gender assignment operations on intersex infants, until the person in question is old enough to make an informed decision about their body.
Supporters of circumcision focus on hygiene and health concerns for uncircumcised boys. There is also credible evidence suggesting circumcision reduces the likelihood of transmitting diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
We shouldn’t ignore this. But in Australia, should we be focusing our energies on getting boys circumcised, or just making sure that they use condoms? Condoms are ultimately substantially more reliable than the absence of a foreskin in preventing the spread of STDs.
Moreover, if the medical evidence is so solid, then why is it against hospital policy to perform non-therapeutic male circumcision in public hospitals in Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia?
Most leading medical associations across the world and in Australia agree that there is not enough medical evidence to support routine circumcision.
Indeed, many studies suggest that, like most parts of the body, the foreskin may serve a purpose. Though disputed, studies have shown that the foreskin appears to be highly innervated and enhances sexual pleasure.
Perhaps reflecting a growing awareness of these factors, male circumcision is decreasing in Australia. In the 1970s, close to 90% of baby boys were circumcised. Today, it is just 12%.
Despite this, the federal government continues to pay a medical benefit for the procedure! Taxpayers are paying parents money so that they can have their infant boys’ foreskins chopped off.
Historically, male circumcision has been a spiritual or religious ritual. Any moves to ban it would probably be interpreted as restricting religious freedom. But in a secular society we must base laws on a consistent set of values. We must consider the rights of children above the rights of parents to their religious expression.
When it would be illegal to carry out any other non-therapeutic, invasive and irreversible surgery on a child, we need to ask ourselves why male circumcision has fallen through the gaps.
This is not a value judgement about circumcision, or making all circumcisions per se illegal. This is about protecting children’s rights and giving them a choice in a matter that fundamentally affects their body.
[Further information is available at law.utas.edu.au]